By Cameron Fergus
Beyond the shadow of Kilimanjaro lies a mountain with all of its neighbor’s glory but little of its fame. Cameron Fergus treks Mount Kenya and reveals the true light at Africa’s fabled heart.
On Mount Kenya it is the silence that gets you. Between the park gates and the glacier-encrusted summits lies impenetrable jungle, chilly shrub-covered moorlands, an alpine forest, and an all-embracing silence that was so unexpected.
Like a giant open-air cathedral, it is a place that encourages whispered thoughts and quiet contemplation. More than simply a jagged mountain range on the far horizon, Mount Kenya is also the spiritual heart of the East African nation that bears its name.
The second highest massif on a continent often regarded only for darkness, Mount Kenya stands proud and defiant, its shimmering peaks a beacon of brightness at Africa’s core.
The mountain awaits
“Twende?” (“Ready?”) “Mount Kenya is waiting.” Isaac our guide, a Kikuyu tribesman from Kenya’s west, was keen to get moving. Far from his home near Lake Nakuru, he was commencing yet another assignment that would have him away from his wife and two young daughters for a long stretch.
“I love to guide clients on these mountains, especially Mount Kenya,” he explained, his genuine affection for his work becoming clear, “but of course I love my daughters more.”
It had been a long tourist season, with too many days spent away from home. “But of course they wait for me to climb the mountain again. So let’s go. But walk quietly, take your time, and enjoy the mountain.”
It was a genuine insight into Isaac’s life balancing his roles as guide, father and husband, and a timely reminder of the sacrifices that other people often make in order to show us their world.
Entering the forest our group – three trekkers, Isaac, and four porters – fall into line along the trail fringed with bright yellow wildflowers and long, hardy tussock grasses, walled in by a great green thicket of shrubs and heather.
Rising from out of the rapidly thickening hedge, giant fig and cedar trees tower more than 20 meters over the forest floor, their resident birdlife providing the only soundtrack to the scene. The air is a pungent fusion of all this undergrowth, combined with the humidity of the tropics, shot through with the ever-present alpine breeze.
The whole place is overgrown with vines, mosses, lichens and other invaders, an impenetrable wall of vegetation growing over, around and above one another. This is no well-ordered Garden of Eden, it is a rampant jungle as wild as its inhabitants.
Encompassed in a silent world created by thick walls of bush on all sides, the slightest sound – trees creaking in the gathering breeze, the snapping of twigs and branches – could mean anything. Our senses fully engaged, absorbed by the wildness of Africa, we are driven by the most primal of instincts: survival.
Evidence of wildlife is all around: great fresh balls of elephant dung lie steaming in the chilling late afternoon air; while lion and leopard scat along the trail is a frequent reminder that the big cats still stalk the slopes of this mountain. It is those moments – the excitement and the fear of being in truly wild country – that Africa delivers in spades.
The peaks and valleys
Early on the second day we ascend a ridge to find the wide expanse of the Mackinder Valley opening up before us, sealed at the far end by the massive forms of the mountain’s main peaks Nelion and Batian. The peaks are a dark, brooding, and overwhelming mass of jagged rock and ice which, until now, remained hidden behind heavy cloud.
“This is nothing,” suggested Isaac. “On the way down the view is much better.”
To the northwest the sharp V-shaped valley walls, carved out by the melt water from glaciers over millennia, twisted and turned toward the distant lowlands. To the southeast, the mountain range itself: serrated, black and silver, its glaciers shining in the morning sun in defiance of their tropical location here on the Equator. No Isaac, this is not “nothing.”
Trekking for the entire day along the Mackinder Valley reveals the truly unique inhabitants of this mountain. Giant Groundsel trees and Ostrich Lobelia – more like great vertical feather boas than mountain flora – dominate the valley walls.
Eagles soar high above, observing our progress, and Rock Hyraxes scurry in all directions as we shuffle into Shipton’s Camp.
Standing beneath the summits, at the end of a long trekking day (the second day that we’ve not seen a single other person on the trail), porter Mwangi and I watch thick, dark, ominous clouds blow across the mountain range and down into the valley.
With a momentarily clear view of the peaks, I refer to the mountain as ‘Kirinyaga,’ a name that the Kikuyu tribe have traditionally used when referring to Mount Kenya. The Kikuyu regard this place as the sacred home of their god, and build their houses with the doorways facing the mountain so that it is the first thing they see when they rise and the last when they retire for the night.
But I was to learn that Kirinyaga is a name that is frowned upon in wider company. “No, we do not use that name, we only call it Mount Kenya,” asserted Mwangi. “There are more than forty tribes here and the mountain belongs to all of us, not only one tribe.”
The look on Mwangi’s face communicated more than his words ever could. I had inadvertently stumbled across an issue that was far more sensitive than I could understand. Kenya has a rich and robust culture, its tribal populations supplemented by significant Indian, British and Arab groups. And while the mountain unites all, Mwangi’s comments revealed that it is a sometimes-fragile union.
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